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A Confession: How I Came To Comprehend The Greatness Of The Kansas City Royals

Courtesy photo

The only time I've come close to getting at a brawl was at Yankee Stadium.

It was 1999. I was living in New York, and I went to a game with my baseball-obsessed college boyfriend.

We sat in the bleachers where the tickets were cheap, the beer flowed and fights were plentiful. The Royals were a joke and the Yankees were World Series champions.

I was a Kansas Citian living in New York, accustomed to a certain amount of abuse. I loved the Royals on principle, but I’m not a sports person. If I can pay attention past the 7th inning stretch, it’s a personal victory. Because let’s face it, there are only so many possibilities in baseball. Guy hits the ball, or he doesn’t. Makes it to first base, or not. And so on.

But that night, something caught my attention: The Royals started looking like they might win. At first it felt like a fluke, but soon, the Yanks around me started noticing.

Every comment from the bleacher contingent prompted the boyfriend’s sideways glances in my direction. At first, I just sighed.

Finally, some guy behind me who’d been relentlessly running his mouth said, “Hey ump, go home to the backwaters of Missouri, where you belong!”

That did it. I turned around and said, “Is it really that hard for you to accept that MY TEAM is WINNING right now?”

The guy shifted his substantial weight and my boyfriend winced.

“It’s alright if YOU’RE from Missouri,” he said. “But an ump from Missouri wouldn’t be fair.”

I started to respond but the boyfriend grabbed my arm and shook his head.

Looking back, what’s most surprising to me isn’t that I almost got into a fight at Yankee Stadium. It’s that, in hostile territory, I proclaimed the Royals to be “my team.”

The Royals have a soft spot in my heart regardless of how I feel about baseball. So does Kauffman Stadium – those water shows in the fountains, the color of our team’s uniforms, the sea of Royal blue in the crowd. People walking up and down the aisles yelling, “Frosty Malt!” and “ice-cold beer.”The long drive to and from the stadium – it’s all part of the feeling of being home.

I remember jumping on the couch in 1985, when the Royals won the World Series. I still have the childhood diary where I tried to draw the fireworks I saw at what was then called Royals Stadium on the 4th of July. I sat on my grandmother’s lap as she shouted with every explosion of light, “Kid, that one’s got to land on us!” My favorite picture of me and my brother was taken in 1984, when I was 7 and he was 4. He’s wearing a jacket that’s way too big for him, with the word Royals in huge letters across the back.

But I’ve always felt like an imposter at games, as if not being into sports disqualifies me from the right to claim a baseball team as my own.

When the Royals made it to the World Series last year, my excitement was genuine, but I was still bored when I tried to watch the games. I would sit with friends, pop a beer and face the television. Then a bunch of people cheering would startle me out of a spacy daydream and I’d clap along, suddenly aware that, once again, I hadn’t been paying attention.

Why did I love a team I couldn’t even make myself watch? And how could this team have inspired me to almost get in a fight? I didn’t understand until I read The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, The New York Yankees and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy by Filip Bondy. By explaining what led up to it, Bondy’s book explains the drama of the 1984 game when George Brett was called out for using a bat with too much tar on the grip.

What I learned was that the story of the Royals is all about Kansas City’s unpretentious, scrappy underdog identity.

I learned how Ewing Kauffman started a whole new kind of team here. Whereas most new teams got started by hiring known players a little past their prime, Kauffman developed a system for recruiting and developing young players. He started a baseball academy in Kansas City, where high school kids with exceptional promise would live, go to school and train. The program was short-lived because it was expensive for the return, but players like Frank White came out of it.

When the Royals won their first game against the Minnesota Twins with a roster full of unknowns, it shocked the major leagues and changed how teams built talent.

Everything about the Royals is in sharp contrast to the Yankees, and Bondy weaves a compelling narrative about a Shakespearean-caliber rivalry between the teams, as much about team identity as it is about technicalities like pine tar on bats.

It’s also a rivalry most of Kansas City seems to have forgotten. It comes down to entitlement versus humility, a squad of well-paid mercenaries versus a team of hard-working loyalists, the center of the universe versus a remote Cowtown.

I love New York, but it’s a city where people simply assume everything is a little better than its equivalent somewhere else.

And that is why, when the Royals are winning, everyone, even in New York, needs to recognize that David is beating Goliath. That’s a glorious triumph to behold, even for someone who’s not watching the game.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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